Commentary

Disciples


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 56] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Thursday, January 31, 1889

     7.20 P.M. W. reading the Press. Greeted me heartily. Laid paper down. No visitors today. "I've discouraged the visitors so they don't come now: except the far-off ones: they don't know." Feeling "serenely composed," he said. "I can call this one of my most peaceful days—one of the very best: I have indeed been in luck so far this year—especially the last three or four weeks: yet there seems to have been no access of strength. Sometimes the long confinement involves me in a restlessness that is absolutely painful: still I must laugh that down: I ought to thank God it's no worse, as well it might be." He again said: "You must be sick having me talk sickness every day: yet you must also know I hate myself for doing so." I said: "Carlyle said in substance that though Schiller was always a sick man he was never a sick writer." W. nodded: "That's beautiful, whether Carlyle's or yours—though I suspect it's yours." "Didn't someone in the Chinese say the man's belly was the man?" W. laughed: "I don't know who said it: anyway, it's mostly true: there's some sort of intimate association between a man's belly and his soul that no amount of spirituality can get rid of."

     W. very wide awake. Talked with real swing: with great comfort of manner. "I wrote a postal to O'Connor today: just sent it off with Ed: there was nothing on it: there was nothing to say, in fact: I only felt it well to write if for nothing else than to break the dreadful sameness of his days—the harrowing routine of his sickroom. Think

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 57] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
of him sitting there: the long, long sit: never a thing to do: confined: perhaps himself hopeless. It would be hard to know what to write him: yet I never have him out of my mind."
W. was sure that O'C. had been at least until recently wholly unaware of the nature of his trouble. Had he yet been told of its ramifications? "I don't know: I hear nothing as I have said, I never allude to it in writing to him: I know he is in wretched shape: he's not likely to last much beyond the next month or two or three: his condition is hopeless. It looks now as if it would be for him a steady downhill trot: I see no better, I see only worse, things ahead. It often happens that locomotor ataxia is very lingering: yet I have the feeling that in this case there'll be no prolongation of the story. Why do I get that impression? God knows: I can't say: only I have it very strong." He asked me: "You have not so far met William? You must: I wish you might arrange to do so soon: do not put it off: the delay might be fatal: you two should meet." He was grave. "I suppose we'll never see each other again. When he was here a year and a half ago, when he came, I was out, or something—I don't know just where, for what: but Mary Davis talked with him: she knows much about that peculiar disease, having nursed Captain Fritzinger through a long siege: she told me afterwards she gathered from what she saw then, heard from him, what was the matter: she felt the seriousness of his condition: but she said that William himself betrayed no such consciousness: could see nothing threatening: was perfectly cheerful, witty: talked without stint, effort: gaily: went off in his carriage defiantly, almost: impudently, impertinently: ready to joke his anxieties away if he had any: determined, if he knew the truth, to die game, with no whimpering or complaints." I asked: "Wouldn't he rather lie than weep in that sort of a crisis?" "A thousand times rather: I should say so: his wit, his courage, are constitutional: he is what he is because he has what he has: there are profound reasons for him: he baffles me, he's so large, he's so various: I try to explain him: I can't do it." But W. added: "The future can have little in store for him: I have fought my distress but it comes back: I sit here, read, think, doze, dream, simmer, but he is with me always."

     Found that W. had another letter from Bucke. "There is nothing special in it: this, maybe: that the fire put so much extra work of one kind and another on him he is compelled to postpone his coming

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 58] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
for another week—from the 4th to the 11th. It does seem as if the fates were sworn against him: first one thing occurs, then another: fires, floods, draughts. I wrote him today."
Then he asked suddenly: "Have you anything to return today?" answering himself: "Oh no! I remember: I sent Doctor the Scottish Art Review"—and then, as he regarded my dubious face: "Oh I know that it's not deep, not great, but it'll do—it'll do!" Further said: "The Ethical Record is still here: I shall include that in the first bundle I send to London." He asked: "Do you read the Ethical fol-de-rol? I make an effort occasionally to grapple with it: it can't be said to work: I find it tiresome, dry, sawdusty."

     W. gave me his draft of a letter to Rossetti. "Went on a steamer N. Y. 31st Jan. '72," was his pencilled memorandum. W. said: "You put away the letter I gave you the other day: here's a note for it: keep them together: but before you go, read it to me: I may have something to say to you about it."


Washington, January 30, 1872.

I send you my piece in a magazine, lately started away off in Kansas, fifteen or eighteen hundred miles inland—and also improve the occasion to write you a too long delayed letter. Your letters of July 9 last, and Oct. 8 were welcomed. Since which last nothing from you has reached me.

John Burroughs returned with glowing accounts of England, and heartiest satisfaction from his visit to you and talks &c. I saw him day before yesterday. He is well and flourishing. [W. broke in as I read: "God knows, John's first visit threatened to be a mess but something better happened next time!"]

I still remain living here as clerk in a Government Department—find it not unpleasant—find it allows a free margin—working hours from 9 to 3—work at present easy—my pay $1600 a year (paper). Washington is a broad, magnificent place naturally—avenues, spaces, vistas, environing hills, rivers, &c. all so ample, stretching out with plenty of room, plenty of distance,—and then as you get towards the lines, fine, hard, wide roads (made by military engineers in the war), leading far away, through dale and over hill, many and many a mile. Often of full moonlight nights, I go on long walks with some companion, six, eight miles away, into Virginia or Maryland, over these

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 59] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
roads. It is wonderfully inspiring, novel, with such new . . . . We have spells here, night or day, of surely the finest weather and atmosphere in the world. The nights especially are sometimes miracles of clearness and purity—the air dry and exhilarating. In fact, night or day, the whole District affords an inexhaustible mine for explorations—soothing sane hours. It is indeed to these mostly my habits are adjusted. I have good health. Am fortunate enough to almost always get out of bed in the morning with a light heart and good appetite—read and study very little—spend two or three hours every day on the streets or in the frequented public places—come in passing contact with all sorts of persons, sufficiently—go little, almost not at all, into "society"—have, however, the blessing of some first-rate women friends—life upon the whole dim, flowing calm, democratic, sufficiently cheerful, on a cheap scale, suitable and occupied, enjoying a good deal, flecked of course with some clouds and shadows. I still keep in good flesh and weight.


The photos I sent you last fall are faithful physiological likenesses. I still have yours, carte, among a little special cluster before me on my desk door.

My poetry remains yet in substance quite unrecognized here in the land for which it was written—the best established magazines, and literary personages, quite ignore me and it. It has to this day failed to find an American publisher (as you perhaps know, I have myself printed the successive editions). And though there is a small minority of approval, the result to the great majority continues to bring me sneers, contempt, and official coolness. My dismissal from employment in 1865, by the Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Harlan, for the sole reason of my being the author of Leaves of Grass, only affords too true a specimen of the high conventional feeling about it still. The journals are many of them inveterately spiteful. For example, in a letter in the correspondence of one of the principal New York papers lately (the N.Y. Tribune) from a lady tourist, an authoress of repute, an allusion in the letter to mountain scenery was illustrated by an innocent quotation from and passing complimentary allusion to me. The letter was all and conspicuously published, except that the editor carefully cut out the lines quoting from and alluding to me, mutilating the text, and stultifying the authoress to her great vexation. This to give you a clearer notion of the state of

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 60] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
the case here. I desire my friends in England writing about me to not be afraid of publishing this state of the case.


Of general matters here, I can only say that the country seems to have entirely recuperated from the war. Everything is teeming and busy—more so than ever. Productiveness, wealth, population, material activity and results, here, far beyond all measure, all precedent—and then over such an area, three to four millions of square miles!—Great debits and offsets, of course—but such oceanic floods and masses of common domestic plenty and comfort, universal supplies of eating and drinking, houses to live in, farms, clothes, plenty of money, copious travelling, intense activity, &c. &c. There is something meteoric about it, I know very well—but altogether it is Kosmic—and real enough.

It is not without glow and enjoyment to me, living and moving in the midst of the national whirl, din—intensity of material success—(as I am myself naturally sufficiently sluggish and ballasted to stand it) I find myself enjoying it all thoroughly, but in the best with reference to its foundations for and bearing on the future (as you doubtless see in my book).

But I will turn to more special personal topics.

Prof. Dowden's Westminster Review article last fall made us all pleased and proud. He and I have since had some correspondence and I have come to consider him, like yourself, fully as near to me in personal as literary relations. I have just written to him.

I have received word direct from Mrs. Gilchrist. Nothing in my life, or my literary fortunes, has brought me more comfort and support every way—nothing has more spiritually soothed me—than the warm appreciation and friendship of that true full woman (I still use the broad, grand, grown Saxon word, our highest need).

I have twice received letters from Tennyson—and very cordial and hearty letters. He sends me an invitation to visit him.

I deeply appreciate Swinburne's kindness and approbation. I ought to have written him to acknowledge the very great compliment of his poem addressed to me in Songs before Sunrise, but am just the most wretched and procrastinating letter writer alive. If I should indeed come to England, I will call upon him among the first, and personally thank him.

I received some three months since a generous, impulsive, affectionate

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 61] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
letter from Joaquin Miller. I hear he is now in faroff Oregon, amid the grand scenery there, studying and writing. I saw in the papers that he was writing a play.


Wm. O'Connor, wife and daughter, have just gone on a pleasure trip of a month to Cuba.

I received some time since a most frank and kind letter and brief printed poem from John Addington Symonds, of Bristol, England. The Love and Death I read and reread with admiration. I have just written to Mr. Symonds.

I received Roden Noel's Study, in Dark Blue for October, and November last, and appreciate it—and also a letter from himself. I have sent him a copy of my last edition, and intend to write him.

I proposed by letter not long since to Ellis and Green, of London, to publish my poems complete and verbatim. Mr. Ellis wrote me a good friendly letter, but declined the proposition.

I shall be thankful to receive a copy of your Vol. of selections from American poets when ready—and always, always, glad my friend, to hear from you—hope, indeed, you will not punish me for my own delay, but write me fully and freely, soon as convenient.

Walt Whitman.


     W. stopped me every now and then as I read to say something. I asked W.: "Walt, don't you sometimes put that American neglect business a bit too strong?" He said: "No: I don't think so: do you?" I said: "You were face to face with your enemies here: in England you were only face to face with your friends: Wouldn't that make a difference? confuse the situation somewhat?" W. said: "That's a new point of view: maybe: there was hell to pay." I said: "Suppose you had made your fight in England or Germany: wouldn't there have been hell to pay?" He was very quiet. "You're driving me hard along an unusual track: I never put it to myself that way." I said again: "After all you only had a few friends in England: a few in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, France; so far as you know only a hundred or two: didn't you have a hundred or two here?" He was very calm over my questions but said: "You've certainly aroused in me surprising reflections. I have no doubt the immediacy of the apparition here may have dictated an extreme contrast. The general fact still remains: I was not welcomed: I was tabooed: the

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 62] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
main thing I met with was opposition."
I acknowledged that was true. But I said: "Wasn't the main thing you met with on the other side also opposition? Symonds, Dowden, Rossetti, those others, were exceptional and few." He was not inclined to quarrel over my protest. "You've given me quite a meal to chew over." I asked W. too about his prosperity talk. "Don't you think you were too optimistic?" He wanted to know "how." I said: "Was the prosperity you spoke of general or special? Wasn't it rather a class than a universal prosperity?" W. said at once: "If I had known then what I know now I should have modified my emphases: I should have made a few distinctions that I didn't apprehend then but fully realize now." I dissented from W.'s peculiar comment on what he called Swinburne's "approbation." "It looks, Walt, as if you was rather hungry for it." He said: "I admit I would not have used the word now: maybe I was then more sensitively appreciative of personal assent than I am now: certainly Swinburne has reneged on it all since then: John could never brook Swinburne's approval: resented it: said to me, you've no right to rejoice in it: I thought John extravagant then: now I know he knew then what I didn't." W. was "very willing to be convinced," he said: and he also said: "The tussle has been a severe one: perhaps that's the reason some of the elements may have been misjudged." Added: "I've been so misjudged myself, God knows I don't want to misjudge others."

     Read Scribner's today. "Also a bit of Cooper: Fenimore: about Natty Bumppo." Somehow he thought "Natty peculiarly a Leaves of Grass man." Cooper didn't live to know W., but W. said: "There were reasons why he and I should have fraternized: I look upon Cooper as new rather than old—as belonging to our era, as cultivating our graces."

     Reference to something W. wrote about freedom in his Collect. W. said it was "a fruitful subject," asking me: "Is it clear to you? perfectly clear?" "Freedom under law: there's no fact deeper, more engrossing, than that." I called it freedom "except to jump out of your skin"—he laughing gently: "Yes." He spoke of "metaphysical debates": also of the "free will and necessity asininities": "how little" they "contained, amounted to." Then referred to "preachers and their capacity for stirring up a fight about nothing." He also

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 63] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
said: "It does seem as if they spent their lives dawdling with trifles." To him there was "nothing more diabolically sickly than the staple of ministerial debates."

     I happened to refer to W.'s Specimen Days piece called A New York Soldier. W. said: "As I read over even my own story, it all vividly comes back to me: I see all that over again: I often read the Bible: read anything: my point was to please the boys: to do for them just what they most wished done: if I had any rule at all that I observed it was just this: satisfy the boys themselves, at whatever sacrifice: always: except in rare cases humoring them. There were cases in which good reasons obliged me to run counter to them: I hated to do it: I did it with some pain. The doctors would most times leave the boys absolutely in my hands: sometimes, however, their mandates especially concerning diet were imperative." He took all sorts of "useless and useful tidbits" into the hospitals. "Many Bibles: oh! many of them: fruit, tobacco: heaven only knows what not. I read to them: from the Bible if they wished it: from anything else if they preferred: always seriously, always happily." Had he given them his own books? "No: I don't think so: I can't recall a single case in which I gave away Leaves of Grass. Now and then some individuals would ask for something from my pen—something wholly mine; then I would hunt up a magazine or newspaper article somewhere; some slip: give them that." Was he the only one of his bunch who went into the hospitals? He made a leisurely reply. "Yes: I think there was no other: they were all busy: all at work: had their occupations: did not feel called." I said: "Higginson's got your measure, Walt: he says if you hadn't been a coward you'd gone to the front instead of sneaking back into the hospitals." W. exclaimed: "Good for the Colonel! And he has a companion in that: my dear enemy Dick: Richard Henry Stoddard. I know the work I did was commonly considered more fit for preachers, cadets, women: that was the average notion of it: but the boys themselves didn't look at it that way: they saw it in other aspects: related it to other emotionalistic backgrounds.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.